Imploring the political leadership of his day to avoid war, that rigorous 18th century moralist Immanuel Kant, quoting Matthew 10, advised kings and princes, ”œBe ye therefore clever as serpents and innocent as doves.” Kant rec- ognized the never-ending competition between ethics and politics and more generally how difficult it is, in a world of temptations, to apply a moral sense to our daily lives.
But if serpents and doves have to co-exist, these days the serpents are feasting. Politically, Canada is enduring one of the worst scandals in our history with $100 million in feder- al sponsorship money gone missing in a blizzard of fake receipts and dubious accounting. In the corporate world, almost daily there are new revelations about the excesses of Enron and WorldCom, and even such a household icon as Martha Stewart was caught in insider trading. Churches have been rocked by sexual scandal. In the media, Jayson Blair, a reporter for the New York Times, was caught totally fabricat- ing stories and then had the gall to write a book to try to make money over his lying. The formerly expert and disin- terested public service of Canada is deeply implicated in the sponsorship mess and has scandals of its own. In sector after sector, there has been a moral collapse. The critical issues are why has this happened and what is to be done?
To answer these questions, the non-partisan Ginger Group, mostly young progressives, joined forces with Seneca College and York University on March 26, 2004, to organize a day-long conference on ethics and citizen engagement. Ethicist John Dalla Costa told the conference that there has been a shrinking of trust in Canada, with eight in ten Canadians in a recent survey agreeing that people are less trusting than in the past. Information Commissioner John Reid proclaimed the need for a robust interpretation of the Access to Information Act based on the rationale of Justice Brandeis that, ”œsunlight is the best of disinfectants; electric light is the most efficient policeman.” Penny Collenette, senior fellow at the Centre of Business and Government at Harvard University, argued that, ”œour brands and companies carry our pride and flag as well as any Olympic ath- lete.” Jonathan Kay, of the National Post, surprised the delegates by assert- ing that while the media was a watch- dog over the ethics of others, they had no universally accepted code of their own. The mayor of Toronto, David Miller, concluded with a town hall meeting of students who made the point again and again that ethical lapses in our public officials are one reason for the decline in youth partic- ipation in the political process since no one wants to be associated with a corrupt enterprise.
What delegates found in common in recent ethical abuses across several domains was the absence of per- sonal responsibility. Alfonso Gagliano denied liability for his department because he lacked knowledge. His deputy minister did the same. But if the minister and deputy minister were not running the department who was? Max Weber, the inventor of public administration theo- ry, would be aghast, because his whole system depended on an ethic of respon- sibility. Codes of conduct, integrity offices and structures are important, but what is even more critical is that each of us takes responsibility for our own actions. We make choices and our choices have consequences. Organiza- tions or collectives don’t have moral responsibilities, only individuals do. Understanding the primacy of respon- sibility is the starting point of ethical conduct what is even more critical is that each of us takes responsibility for our own actions. We make choices and our choices have consequences. Organiza- tions or collectives don’t have moral responsibilities, only individuals do. Understanding the primacy of respon- sibility is the starting point of ethical conduct.
Ethics are central because it is val- ues and goals that guide human action. Public sector ethics are the most impor- tant of all because representative democracy functions on the notion that those to whom we have delegated power will use their influence for the public good, not private gain. If that accountability chain is broken, then it is everyone looking out only for him- self. Trust withers. Civility declines. Society crumbles. Applying ethical norms is not easy. Immanuel Kant believed that, ”œout of the crooked tim- ber of humanity no straight thing was ever made.” Humanity may indeed often be crooked but the students at Seneca and York devoutly believe that our only hope is to have leaders with backbones strong enough to take per- sonal responsibility for their actions.
The assumption of personal responsibility by our leaders for their actions may be the expectation of stu- dents, and probably of Canadian pub- lic opinion more generally, but in fact this responsibility is denied by a pow- erful tradition of governance " the school of real politick. Practitioners of real politick argue that one cannot apply individual moral standards to state actions, that in government necessity knows no law. Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) is the patron saint of real politick and ”œmurderous Machiavel,” the original of Iago, has a large following even today.
Machiavelli argued that because Christian virtue glorified the meek and selfless, it allowed the world to be dominated by the wicked. To survive in the treacherous world of power, good leaders had to learn how to be bad. In the Discourses he wrote, ”œWhen it is absolutely a question of the safety of one’s country, there must be no consid- eration of just or unjust, of merciful or cruel, and praiseworthy or disgraceful; instead, setting aside every scruple, one must follow to the utmost any plan that will save her life and keep her liberty.” To Dostoevsky’s terrible question ”œIs everything permitted?”,` Machiavelli would eagerly answer, ”œYes.”
Isaiah Berlin, in his essay ”œThe Orig- inality of Machiavelli,” carefully notes the huge number of interpretations of Machiavelli’s thought and the influence of his doctrine (including the Dosto- evsky reference above). Philosophically, Hobbes and Hegel followed Machiavelli in justifying immoral acts when under- taken on behalf of the state, while polit- ically the practitioners of Machiavellian real politick are legion " Richelieu, Bis- marck and Kissinger to name only a few. Frederick the Great cuttingly made a point about public morality and private action when he joked about Marie Theresa of Austria and the partition of Poland that, ”œshe cried but took.”
Canadians, too, are firmly within the real politick tradition, most notably evidenced in the recent sponsorship scandal. Charles Guité, the civil servant who headed the sponsorship unit of Public Works, while not referencing Machiavelli, made a Machiavellian defence of his actions that would have made the old Florentine proud. In tes- timony to the Public Accounts Committee in July 2002, Guité said that he was ”œvery proud” of his role in using sponsorship to promote Canadian unity. ”œWe were basically at war trying to save the country,” he told members of Parliament as they asked him why he had directed contracts to selected advertising firms with mini- mal paperwork. ”œWhen you’re at war, you drop the book and the rules and you don’t give your plan to the opposi- tion.” Messieurs Gagliano and Guité denied personal responsibility for the scandal because either they didn’t know what was going on, or if they did, it was for a higher calling " the preservation of the country. Necessity knows no law " the perfect Machiavellian argument.
Ethics are codes of conduct based on ultimate values sought after for their own sake. For Machiavelli and for his Canadian supporters in the unity fight, the survival of the Canadian state is the ultimate value. Choices have to be made, and if bending a few account- ing rules is necessary to promote Quebec sponsorships whose public visibility will encourage federalists and irritate separatists, so be it. (I have not heard anyone make the argument that flying the Canadian flag at sporting events would actually turn a separatist into a federalist.) The key question is who decides the ultimate ends? Or to quote another ancient authority, what is the answer to Juvenal’s question, ”œWho is to guard the guardians?”
Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, in Moral Man and Immoral Society, has one answer to Juvenal’s question " the necessity for institutional counter- weights. He writes: ”œAny political philos- ophy which assumes that natural impulses, that is greed, the will-to-power and other forms of self-assertion, can never be completely controlled or subli- mated by reason, is under the necessity of countenancing political policies which attempt the control of nature in human nature by setting the forces of nature against the impulses of nature…power is needed to destroy power.”
For Neibuhr, and most other moralists, humankind is a cracked ves- sel. One part of us is overwhelmingly self-absorbed: We want to preserve, acquire and dominate. Machiavelli in the Prince, for example, describes his fellow Italians as ”œungrateful, wanton, false, and dissimulating, cowardly and greedy…arrogant and mean, their nat- ural impulse is to be insolent when their affairs are prospering and abject- ly servile when adversity hits them.” No honey coating there.
But human beings are more than animals: We also have the possibility of redeeming life by lending to it beauty, clarity, dignity, order and love. By developing our moral capacities we can hold in check, if not completely eliminate, the impulse to dominate. Ethics are an intensely personal matter, and ethical imperatives will differ. Thus Machiavelli extols the primacy of the state while the Dalai Lama believes ”œcompassion to be the basis and supreme support of humankind.” If we are bound to disagree on ultimate ends, then what is necessary is to have a process of debate and transparency so that one’s assumptions and values can be measured. Secrecy is the greatest dan- ger in a democracy because if citizens are kept in the dark by their leaders, they have no way of judging if ends are really ultimate. Therefore an answer to the question who will guard the guardians is that we must all do so by ensuring the guardians do their guard- ing in sunlight, not in darkness.
Many dismiss Paul Martin’s emphasis on the ”œdemocratic deficit” as too little, too late, but insti- tutional reform is one concrete answer to the ethical dilemmas highlighted by the sponsorship scandal. If there had been real accountability of the executive to parliament, or if the public serv- ice had not been browbeaten to go along with retrograde political demands, then those who bent the rules might have thought twice. When I first went to work for Walter Gordon as a very junior research assistant in the mid-1960s, one of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was that when I contemplated any action, I should consider what it would be like if it was reported in the Globe and Mail in the morning. If I didn’t want it in the Globe then I shouldn’t do it.
The York-Seneca conference on ethics discussed a host of institutional reform ideas on transparency and counterweight, all of which should be implemented. The ideas included:
Better record management. No one in Ottawa ever takes minutes anymore. The Cabinet may be the only body that still has decent record keeping. But how can the offices of comtroller-gen- eral or auditor-general work as a check if there is no paper trail? Every decision-making meeting, whether between officials or min- isters, should be minuted.
The Access to Information Act should apply to Crown corpora- tions. Among many surprises of the sponsorship scandal was the involvement of Canada Post and Via Rail in the misleading accounting and invoicing trail. A simple principle should apply here: those that receive public monies should conform to public standards.
The public service seems to be hopelessly confused about respon- sibility and accountability. If there is no clear delineation about what we expect from ministers and from officials, then the issue becomes muddled. Too many hands means that no one pair of hands can be held responsible. Parliament (and the auditor-gen- eral) demands pristine process standards while the prevailing orthodoxy of the new public management theory of public administration urges public ser- vants to be entrepreneurial and take risks. It doesn’t scan. Civil servants will not take risks if Parliament holds them and not their ministers accountable. Yet while ministers offload their responsibilities onto public ser- vants (”œI didn’t know”), public servants must still adhere to the convention of public silence. They can be attacked but cannot attack back. The public service cannot function if it is in limbo on such key areas as their responsibility vis- à-vis Parliament: The result is stasis. Nothing happens. It is not an exaggeration to say that the combination of the sponsor- ship scandal, the cost overrun of the gun registry, and the well doc- umented problems at Human Resources Development Canada have thrown so much dirt into the machine of government that it has nearly seized up. There is a desperate need for clarity: a com- mittee of wise former politicians and civil servants like Arthur Kroeger, Tommy Shoyama, Paul Tellier, Monique Bégin, and Flora MacDonald, chaired perhaps by Preston Manning, should be asked to prepare a short statement of accountability principles to gov- ern the Parliament-minister- official nexus. Parliament should then debate it and pass a motion that the principles are those of the House. Not a law necessarily but a clear moral guide.
If the public service is confused, Parliament is stretched. Committees of Parliament do not do their oversight functions because Parliament does not have the staff resources of even one department, let alone the Government of Canada. Parliament has the will but not the capacity. While the Privy Council Office or the Department of Finance have hundreds of skilled officials to advise ministers, the Library of Parliament has less than 100 researchers to serve all 300 members. Without a major addition to the budgets of the House of Commons and Senate, rhetoric about ”œimproved legisla- tive oversight,” will remain only words. Yet one should not despair about the potential impact of House and Senate committees, given the proper resources. The Senate Committee on Defence, for example, chaired by Colin Kenny, has done outstanding work on national security and emergency planning. The Martin government’s reorganization of our national security and emer- gency preparedness machinery on December 12, 2003 is almost entirely due to the public atten- tion the Senate brought to this issue. We will be serious about restoring Parliament’s ability to control the executive only when we give it the tools to do the job.
If the public service needs to maintain its integrity, and Parliament needs to acquire some capacity, our party system needs to get back into the ideas busi- ness. The volunteer base of par- ties can be another counterweight to the executive but only if parties are more than flagships of convenience for whoever hap- pens to be leading them. Parties should stand for ideas and these ideas should compete in the mar- ketplace of public opinion. But ideas don’t just happen. Thought and research are preliminary to idea formation. We must put our parties back into the thinking business. Most of the finances of parties will now come from the public purse after Jean Chrétien’s reform of electoral financing. With such bounty should come conditions: a fair and transparent method of choosing candidates and leaders (flagrantly not fol- lowed in the recent leadership contests in the Conservative and Liberal parties where the block buying of memberships was com- mon) and a portion of the resources to be devoted to research foundations as in the German party system. If parties had the capacity to develop ideas, that too would be a counter- weight to the executive.
Eyes tend to glaze over when institu- tional reforms of Parliament, party and the public service make their rare appearance on the public policy agen- da. But only a transparent process and robust set of institutions can prevent the secret abuses and moral laxities of the recent past. In Canada, ethical action demands institutional reform.
A strong system of institutional counterweights is based on the assump- tion that humankind will inevitably sin. We are ”œchildren of light and children of darkness” according to Reinhold Niebuhr, and when our dark side bursts forth we need dikes to stop the sludge. More charitably, but in the same direc- tion, Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher of pluralism, argues that since we have competing concepts of the good, there- fore we need a system that ventilates and throws open the debate.
But if one response to ethical abuses is that they are part of human nature and therefore we should design a system to cope with them, another per- spective is that we should not ignore the possibility that humankind can be educated to keep our darker impulses at bay. If the protestant theologian Reinhold Neibuhr is a pessimist, or a self-described ”œChristian realist,” then Catholic theologian Hans KuÌˆng is an optimist, a believer that individuals can find something greater than themselves by consciously making ethical behav- iour the centre of our existence. In Global Responsibility, KuÌˆng asks, ”œWhy not do evil?” and argues that: ”œWe need reflection on ethics, on the basic moral attitude of human beings: we need an ethical system, a philosophical or theo- logical theory of values and norms, to direct our decisions and actions. The crisis must be seen as an opportunity.”
The starting point for KuÌˆng is that an ethic of responsibility should replace our current fascination with success. An ethic of responsibility ”œis the opposite of an action for which the end sanctifies the means and for which whatever functions, brings prof- it, power, or enjoyment, is good. This in particular can lead to cross libertin- ism and Machiavellianism. Such an ethic can have no future.”
KuÌˆng has not just written about ethics, he has worked diligently to per- suade the world’s leaders to do some- thing about it. KuÌˆng was the principal author of ”œA Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities,” a charter that aims to complement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations in 1948.
The ”œUniversal Declaration of Human Responsibilities,” is the key project of the InterAction Council, an organization of retired leaders created in 1983 by Helmut Schmidt of Germany and Takeo Fukuda of Japan. For many years Pierre Trudeau was an active mem- ber of this group and played a special role in championing the Responsibility Declaration. The men and women who make up the InterAction Council know power, and now they speak truth. It is a melancholy thought that we would all be better off had truth been more cen- tral to their days in the sun. But the Council, nevertheless, has done impor- tant work by convening religious leaders from all faiths " Christian, Islam, Buddhism and Confucianism " to work on the interfaith charter. The result of this ethical inquiry is the Universal Declaration whose basic premise is ”œto aim at the greatest amount of freedom possible but also to develop the fullest sense of responsibility that will allow that freedom itself to grow.” As the Council rightly declared in 1997 after endorsing the work of the religious lead- ers, ”œit is time to talk about human responsibilities.”
Canada played a large role in the drafting of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. John Humphrey of McGill wrote the first draft of the Declaration that Eleanor Roosevelt eventually brought to the United Nations. Today Canadians should play the same role with the Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities. A parliamentary com- mittee should take the InterAction Council document and hold public hearings to refine and strengthen the document. It was a parliamentary committee, after all, that broadened and improved Mr. Trudeau’s Charter of Rights. Once a consensus is reached, Parliament should adopt the Universal Declaration, and then the government should introduce the Responsibility Charter to the United Nations. Canada should champion the ethic of respon- sibility today as fervently as we sup- ported human rights in 1948.
Canada needs both an ethical gov- ernment at home and an ethical inter- national policy abroad. Such a cause would make Machiavelli smile but I say along with Robert Browning that, ”œA man’s reach may exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
More information about the Ginger Group conference can be found at www.gingergroup.org